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Entry updated 23 December 2023. Tagged: Theme.

The idea of "mutation" as a concept for use in understanding biological Evolution was popularized by Hugo de Vries (1848-1935) in Die Mutationstheorie (1901-1903); he related it to gross hereditary variations – the freakish "sports" which occasionally turn up in animal populations. Such sports are usually short-lived and sterile, and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had rejected the notion that they might play a key part; the concept of mutation as an evolutionary factor was eventually modified to refer to relatively slight modifications of individual genes. In 1927 the US geneticist H J Muller (1890-1967) succeeded in inducing mutations in fruit flies by irradiation, and this success captivated the imagination of many speculative writers. One of the first to take up the notion was John Taine, who wrote several extravagant "mutational romances". In The Greatest Adventure (1929) the corpses of giant saurians, no two alike, begin floating up from the ocean depths and are traced to a Lost World in Antarctica where experiments in mutation were once carried out. In The Iron Star (1930) a mutagenic meteor transforms a region in Africa, causing local wildlife to undergo exotic metamorphoses. In Seeds of Life (Fall 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1951) an irradiated man becomes a Superman, but does not realize the damage done to the genes which he transfers to the next generation. Stories like these, which attribute magical metamorphic qualities to radiation, owe far more to de Vries than to orthodox mutation theory, and yet they have remained commonplace throughout the history of sf. Mutational romance has been a staple of Pulp magazines, Comics and sf Cinema, with the irradiation of various creatures frequently producing giant Monsters and the irradiation of people causing metamorphoses into supermen (many – possibly most – Superheroes have this type of genesis) or subhumans. Examples from the early pulps include Jack Williamson's "The Metal Man" (December 1928 Amazing) and Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (April 1931 Wonder Stories). Hamilton went on to write many further mutational romances, notably The Star of Life (January 1947 Startling; rev 1959). He habitually featured developmental metamorphoses, and wrote an early story in which a mutant child is born to irradiated parents, "He that Hath Wings" (July 1938 Weird Tales). Another author who made prolific use of mutational romance during the 1940s was Henry Kuttner, in such stories as "I Am Eden" (December 1946 Thrilling Wonder) and "Atomic!" (August 1947 Thrilling Wonder), where the magical transmogrifications are spread over several generations. Kuttner and C L Moore, collaborating as Lewis Padgett, introduced into the sf pulps the sympathetic mutant superman, unjustly persecuted by "normal" humans, in the Baldy series – assembled as Mutant (stories February 1945-September 1953 Astounding; fixup 1953) – and made comic use of the notion in the Hogben series beginning with "Exit the Professor" (October 1947 Thrilling Wonder). Wilmar H Shiras's "In Hiding" (November 1948 Astounding) – which was assembled with later stories as Children of the Atom (fixup 1953) – treats her mutant protagonist, also born of parents irradiated in a nuclear accident, as the benevolent precursor of a new race.

UK Scientific Romance of the 1930s frequently looked to mutational miracles to produce a better and saner breed of humans; even H G Wells – who knew better – toyed halfheartedly with the idea in Star-Begotten (1937). The idea that mutation is a necessary part of the process of Evolution led many serious sf writers to treat freakish human mutants sympathetically. A E van Vogt did so in Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951), with one of the feared, Telepathic mutant slans as the viewpoint character; the two-headed Joe-Jim in Robert A Heinlein's "Universe" (May 1941 Astounding) is positively depicted; and although "The Mule" – a mind-controlling mutant whose advent had been unforeseeable by Psychohistory – in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952) is the villain of the story, he is ultimately shown as a figure of considerable pathos. Frequently populations of persecuted mutants were used as a metaphor for real-life oppressed minorities (see also Pariah Elite). The explosion of the atom bomb in 1945 gave a great stimulus to mutational romance, and, although the wildest variants of the concept became scarcer in written sf, the logically absurd notion of clutches of similar superhuman mutants arising simultaneously as a result of nuclear accidents remains commonplace. The most notable example is perhaps Wilmar H Shiras's Children of the Atom (stories November 1948-March 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953); a more recent one is Aubade for Gamelon (1984) by John Willett. Post-Holocaust stories frequently feature several subspecies of mutants, and often show the "normal" survivors of the atomic war persecuting the mutants – usually unwisely, as it is from the ranks of the mutants that a new species of humanity, better than the old model, is scheduled to appear; examples include Twilight World (stories 1947 Astounding; fixup 1961) by Poul Anderson and F N Waldrop, John Wyndham's The Chrysalids (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955), Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959), Fritz Leiber's "The Night of the Long Knives" (January 1960 Amazing; vt "The Wolf Pair" in The Night of the Wolf, coll of linked stories 1966) and Edgar Pangborn's Davy (1964).

It was in this period, the heyday of Monster Movies, that the Cinema offered many relatively simplistic mutational romances – notably the giant-ant story Them! (1954). The concept of human mutants with assorted Psi Powers and Superpowers was enthusiastically adopted by Comics, notably in Marvel Comics' The X-Men, which in the twenty-first century spawned the blockbuster franchise of X-Men Films. Having sold film rights to the X-Men franchise, Marvel attempted a second bite of the cherry with the lookalike Television series Mutant X (2001-2004); litigation followed.

Variants on the post-holocaust mutant theme include Lester del Rey's The Eleventh Commandment (1962; rev 1970), in which a post-war Church encourages limitless reproduction in order to fight the lethal effects of the mutation rate; and Samuel R Delany's vivid romance of a social world which has undergone total mutational metamorphosis, The Einstein Intersection (1967). Post-holocaust Paranoia about mutants is used in Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972) as an analogue for Hitler's attitude to the Jews. Further examples of post-holocaust mutational romance include Stuart Gordon's One-Eye (1973) and its sequels, and Hiero's Journey (1973) by Sterling Lanier. A more original story of mutant-persecution is J G Ballard's "Low-Flying Aircraft" (Summer 1975 Bananas), and the ambitious thread of The Einstein Intersection has been taken up by A A Attanasio in Radix (1981) and its sequels. Sf stories dealing sensibly with the idea of mutation remain rare but, considering that the mutational miracle story was taken to its ultimate extreme in Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985), serious sf writers may be forced to become more ingenious in mining the melodramatic potential of the notion. [BS/DRL]

see also: Devolution; Gamma World; Great and Small; Nuclear Energy.

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